Staying Alive Again: When Sweet Is Really Stink!

Hundreds of chemical smells invade our daily lives, making many of us miserable in the process. CARRIE STEELE knows her nose.


As my mind and my senses have become more attuned to what it takes to stay alive, I’ve eliminated my exposure to products where the smell is so sweet that it stinks. This awareness crept up on me softly for a few years, then suddenly, I woke up to the fact that the ‘headachey’ smells were in fact all around me.

So, what are some of these perils I refer to, and are they avoidable? You bet.

When I step out of the lift in my apartment building and walk towards my front door, I can tell if my neighbour across the way has washing drying on a rack inside. How so? Because I can smell the fabric softener from walking down the hall. And I know that I’m not imagining it, because my neighbour also happens to be my mother-in-law, and so I’ve seen the proof.

Did you know that there isn’t actually a law that states that the ingredients that a ‘fragrance’ is composed of have to be listed on a label; even if those ingredients are chemicals, which most of them are? There might be some less than desirable ingredients listed, but you can be sure there will be a whole lot more that aren’t. And just because something says it’s ‘natural’, don’t go thinking that you should feel better about that. I’ve learned that the word ‘natural’ in marketing provides zilch reassurance. Products can contain trace amounts of a natural essence, but typically still have a dozen or more potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals.

It seems that there is a ‘fragrance loophole’ which allows ingredients to be used to provide a nice smell, or cover up a bad smell, and just be listed as ‘fragrance’. According to the Environmental Working Group research, there are 3100 stock chemical ingredients that can be used in any fragrance, from wash powder to perfume to candle wax. And all that sniffing we’re doing of these sickly chemical-based aromas isn’t just not great for us, increasingly research is showing it’s making a lot of us sick.

Last time I was going on a long haul flight, I made a last minute decision to purchase a travel pillow. I’ll confess here and tell you it wasn’t a $50 travel pillow from a specialist travel stand, but rather an $8 travel pillow from what I fondly call ‘a Quickie Mart’ – a small store where everything is cheap and half the stock is stuff nobody actually needs. WhenI got home and removed the plastic wrapping it was sealed into, I reeled in disgust. The pillow smelt like something that came straight out of a chemical factory – I can best describe it as mothballs on steroids. I had a few days before my trip, so decided I would leave the pillow outside on my sheltered deck to ‘off-gas’. I left it there for three whole days, 24 hours a day. It still stunk, though a tiny bit less. I took the pillow with me, but I never put it anywhere near my head. Instead, I had it stuck down by my tailbone, in that annoying gap that small people like me always end up with at the back of airplane seats, and where luckily the smell was not too overpowering. I didn’t even feel good doing that, and ended up chucking it into an airport bin.

I bought some new sheets the other day; pricey, high thread count sheets, which I hope will last for the 10 years or so that our old ones did. But why does everything have to be sealed in airtight plastic packs these days? When I got the sheets out of the packaging, the chemical stink of plastic was horrible. I had to wash the sheets twice on a hot water setting that takes 90 minutes before they smelt anywhere near good enough to want to sleep in a bed made up with them.

Every morning when I walk to work, amongst the other regular walkers I encounter, one man comes to mind. I can smell him coming. I’ve counted many times before the waft of his aftershave, which arrives about four houses before we pass each other, and depending on the breeze, can last a good minute or two after we’ve passed each other. I’m not sure what I would do if I had to sit at a desk next to him all day, or even share an open plan office space. Life would be one constant headache.

You’ve probably guessed by now that I’ve ditched a lot of smelly products as part of my healthier lifestyle. You’d be right. It’s extremely difficult to find totally friendly and green products, and not many of us have time to spend making up our home potions and lotions for everything, but there are products that are friendlier than others (like plant based wash powders and cleaners, and I always use un-fragranced options, so as not to get caught up in that ‘fragrance loophole’ I talked about earlier). Read labels – and look up some of the unpronounceable ingredients you’ve never heard of. You might be surprised, and not in a good way. And all these ‘chemicals’ that have been deemed okay (by someone other than us) to use in personal products and products around the home are all tested individually for safety, but no thought seems to have to be given to what happens when you mix them together.

I no longer use perfume, or fabric softener, or burn scented candles. As a rule of thumb, the sweeter the smell, the more I avoid it. There’s a whole lot less in my bathroom and kitchen cabinets. I use other revolutionary methods to keep my apartment fresh, like opening windows and doors – it’s amazing how well that works! The more I’ve become attuned to sniffing out these fragrance killers, the more sensitive a nose I’ve developed. Which also has a downside, like every time someone in my work place uses the toilet spray in one of the bathrooms, and I feel like I need to don a gas mask. I’m literally choking and have to close my office door. And the fact that people now think I’m actually a beagle, because I sniff everything!

So, next time a scent of super-sweetness wafts your way, from wherever or whatever, just stop for a moment and take a really good sniff – is it really sweet, or is it actually stink? CARRIE STEELE

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